Sunderland legend the late Len Ashurst was ‘one of the few players to ever get the better of George Best’
Mr Ashurst, who made a record 458 appearances for the Black Cats during a career that spanned almost 14 years, has died at the age of 82.
A number of clubs have led the tributes to the player – not least his former colleagues and fans on Wearside, where he helped a 1960s Sunderland team secure promotion to the then-top flight of English football.
Among other praise reserved for the Liverpool-born man, ex-teammates remember Len as having been one of the few defenders who ever managed to ‘get the better of’ George Best, regarded by many as one of the greatest professional footballers of all time.
One former Sunderland player, who was rising through the youth and reserve ranks as Len was coming to the end of his playing career, remembers the robust full-back fondly as a mentor figure for developing young squad members like himself.
“He spent more time trying to help us than he did looking after his own game,” said Micky Horswill, who was part of the Sunderland’s FA-Cup-winning 1973 side.
"That’s what he was all about. I think he got a lot out of bringing through all the kids who were coming on.
"I remember playing up with the reserves in Scarborough one horrible winter’s night when I was only 15 or 16. And in those days, the non-league teams used to kick the life out of us.
"I think in the end Lenny spent more of the night looking after me than he did their right-winger.”
Len ended his playing days at Hartlepool United, where he acted as a player-manager, learning some of the coaching techniques that would serve him well upon his return to Wearside.
He enjoyed a brief spell as Sunderland gaffer the following decade, lasting 66 games, which saw him take the club to the 1985 League Cup final. He also completed management stints at Cardiff City and Newport County.
The SAFC legend will be sorely missed by former colleagues and Wearsiders alike, Mr Horswill added.
He said: "He was a great player as well.
"I was very good friends with George Best when I was at Manchester United. I used to quiz Besty who the hardest players he’d played against were.
"He went, ‘I never had much bother with most defenders – they never got the better of me. Except two. I always had a bad time against Paul Reany at Leeds United. And there was another nasty b*****d who used to play for Sunderland called Ashurst. He never ever gave me a kick any time I played against him.’
"There’s not many people you could say that about. I mean, he kicked him to bits - like most defenders did with Besty - but he played him well as well. When I told Lenny at one of the [Sunderland] matches, he broke into a huge great smile.
"So it’s very sad hearing what’s happened today because he was a very good friend, as well as a great player to play with. He helped me a lot in the early years of my career – when I really needed it.
"We’ve known Lenny’s not been in great health for a while. But if you’re as close to someone as that, it always comes as a shock. Even when you’re expecting it.”
Those who saw Len play from the stands rather, as opposed to those with an up-close pitchside view, have also paid tribute to the defender and former England international who not only became a regular fixture in celebrated Sunderland teams – but was also widely viewed as an ‘adopted Mackem’, having settled in the area long-term.
Mr Ashurst lived for some time in the Roker area, near Sunderland’s old ground, where spectators watched the Black Cats for almost a century until the team moved to its new home at the Stadium of Light in 1997.
The partnership he formed with fellow full-back, Cecil Irwin, is viewed by some supporters as a precursor of sorts to the style of attacking or ‘overlapping’ full-back play associated with contemporary wing-backs like Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
“I just saw Len play a few times – towards the end of his playing career and the beginning of my Sunderland-supporting career, if you like,” said Paul Dobson, editor of the SAFC fanzine, ‘A Love Supreme’.
"Cecil and Len were legendary. They were probably the best full-back pair the club’s ever had. They played around 800 games between them – mostly in the same side, right throughout the ‘60s.
"They were sort of ground-breakers in that way – as attacking-minded fullbacks at a time when that wasn’t a common part of most defenders’ game. And I mean, for loyalty, you couldn’t go further than those two.
"I know he was from Liverpool. But he joined us as a teenager and became Sunderland through and through. He was part of that marvellous 1964 side that won promotion [to the old First Division].
"The ‘73 [cup-winning] thing was a one-off, really. But Len was part of that legendary promotion team in the early ‘60s. People still hold that side up as having played some very good football and they were unlucky not to get promoted earlier.
"And, on top of that, he was here since he was a teenager. He stayed around the North East before his managerial career, married a local lass and then stayed around for a long time.
"So it’s a very, very sad day. I know his health hasn’t been good for a while but it’s always upsetting when someone like that passes away.”